Caution! May become extremely boring after 50 minutes

Feb 02 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

My teaching this semester is driving me nuts, but not because of the content or amount. I am in the midst of teaching two courses and the material overlaps significantly. Despite this, the classes could not be any more different.

Class 1
Subject: "BakedGoodsology"
Size: ~60 students
Meets: 50 mins, M/W/F around noon.

Class 2
Subject: "Pastryology"
Size: ~30 students
Meets: 75 mins, T/R morning (college morning, not real morning)

For Class 1 I am teaching the portion of a broader class that specifically relates to my more specific Class 2. As such, a large amount of the early material for both classes is similar. Both courses are upper-level courses populated by a similar level of students. I therefore assumed that the two classes would react to the material is roughly the same way, but I could not have been more wrong.

Class 1, despite being the larger of the two, is actively engaged and I rarely have to wait for a response to the questions I often pose during the lectures. Looking around the room I typically see the vast majority of students either taking notes or looking back at me, at least doing a decent job of appearing to be paying attention. The students ask good questions and seem interested in the material.

Class 2 is like teaching the undead. Same material, same questions, same (probably bad) jokes and only the sound of crickets to greet my pauses after a question for the class. When I look around the room I see as many tuned out blank stares as I do students paying attention. WTF is going on? The only real differences are the time of the class, the length they are sitting there, size of the class and the room, otherwise we are covering roughly the same stuff.

The difference between the two is as perplexing as it is maddening. If I were not dealing with Class 1 I would be concerned that my teaching style is completely wrong for this stuff, but I now have an experiment suggesting that is not the case. My best guess is that the length of T/R classes puts students in a mindset to be less engaged, but I could be completely wrong. I would be curious if others have experienced something similar.

11 responses so far

  • A'Llyn says:

    Hmm...no similar teaching experience, but reflecting back on my student experience, it could be a deadly combination of the morning time slot AND the longer class period.

    Even college morning is kind of early if you regularly stay up until 2am.

    I recommend starting a third class with the same material, held on T/R afternoons, and a fourth on M/W/F mornings, and see how that goes. It's the only way to know!

    Tell the administration it's important for science, and they'll surely be cool with it.

  • KBHC says:

    I have had this experience as well. I have found that classes of 60-75 students can be even more engaged than smaller classes, even, as you say, on identical material. In smaller classes I have resorted to doing large portions of the class in small groups because I find the full group (20-25) excruciating. It's just small enough that folks feel both paralyzed with fear that they'll be wrong, and just large enough that they hope someone else will answer the question instead.

  • Mokele says:

    Another note on "college morning" - a lot of these students, in addition to staying up late, will usually eat little or nothing for breakfast, sometimes merely a cup of coffee. I remember when I was living in dorms, the dining halls would be deserted until it was close to 11. All that "most important meal of the day" stuff really is true, IME, and can turn a morning class into something out of a Romero movie.

  • GMP says:

    I don't like 75 min classes. After 50 min, the students get all glassy-eyed and I get out of steam anyway and don't use the entire 75 min effectively. So I try to teach MWF even if more than one class per day...
    And there is definitely the morning effect. Last semester I taught a class at 10 and half of them they were still asleep.

  • I can barely survive 50 min classes. Anything longer killed me, no matter how interesting.

  • FSGrad says:

    Man, those T/R morning classes are the worst. Especially the semester I had two in a row, one in the 'morning' timeslot and one in the 'college morning' timeslot. I think that a length*morning interaction is probably the best hypothesis, having had no problems with 75 min afternoon classes (as a student).

  • Mike B says:

    Morning + extended class is kinda the kiss of death for
    student enthusiasm. God knows I had enough 8 AM classes I feared I
    would openly pass out in, and I wasn't exactly Mr. Party Hardy in
    school. The extended time of having to sit in the same damn place
    for that long also tended to make pronouced itching/cramping start
    to dominate your attention. 75 minutes might not be the record (my
    recent graduate classes included a three hour evening lecture
    course, abeit with a ten minute break in the middle) but it's
    certainly long enough to get the "can't sit still much more!"
    effect. The different room theoretically can also be an issue if
    it's tighter quarters/worse climate control (i.e. a stuffy room
    from body heat or poor AC/heating), but the first two conditions
    are generally enough. In any event I wouldn't blame your teaching
    or something; in most long pre-noon classes you're lucky if
    anything short of gunfire perks the students up. Worry more if the
    effect extends to grades at any rate.

  • sciwo says:

    Sometimes it's just the dynamics of that particular group of students. I've taught one of my classes 3 times now, with much the same material, and the last time things that were very successful in the past...just failed completely. Though I think Kate might have also have a point about class size - I have more fun in my less than 12 person classes than in my 17+ person ones.

  • lin says:

    It probably is a combination of both time and length.

    As a scientist can you not swap the two classes around for a week? (Okay I know it is probably impossible, but, you know, experiments are fun!)

    If it is breakfast, you could experiment with serving healthy food (like apples). They did an experiment over here with school children 6-12 years old, since 25%-50% doesn't get breakfast, and got pretty impressive positive results. (Again, probably impossible, but a nice experiment, and if only for a week, you have to cough up 60 or so apples?)

    I had a class once at 9, which was filled with enthusiastic students and one at 11, filled with those who would favor sleeping in and partying (you could pick your own time of day for the classes). So time of day probably isn't the only factor, it interacts with type of student.

  • Pat Bowne says:

    Type of student is a big explanatory factor, I agree. I often have two otherwise identical classes that respond differently.

    I couldn't agree less with the criticisms of extended classes, though. My A&P class has one 50-min class and one 110-min class each week, and students often complain that the 50-min class is too short. In fact, in 24 years I cannot remember one student saying she would rather have more 50-min classes on this material. My junior-level patho course runs in two 110-minute sessions with no complaints aout length, junior-level topics courses routinely run in 3-hour blocks, and last night I taught a grad class for 4 hours -- from 6-10 pm. All have been effective, and more fun to teach than the 50-minute sessions.

    The trick is how you teach them. A 110-min lecture would kill everyone including me; but a 15-min lecture, followed by small group discussion of a case study, followed by large group discussion of the same case study and a few powerpoint images of the concept, then individual reading/writing to explain a diagram from the textbook, then a little more lecture and another case study, then a quick in-class experiment, then building a 3-D model of the structure in question -- you can get through a tremendous amount of material without the students losing focus. It also demonstrates to the students that their goal is to learn the material well enough to apply it, and that will increase their motivation and make them more forgiving when a topic arises that does require 40 minutes of lecture.

  • antipodean says:

    Undergraduates at 9am are like the faculty at 4am. It's the wrong time of the day for them.

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